Thu 17 May 2012
MOCKERY. MGM, 1927. Lon Chaney, Ricardo Cortez, Barbara Bedford, Mack Swain, Emily Fitzroy, Charles Puffy, Kai Schmidt, Johnny Mack Brown. Scenario by Benjamin Christensen based on a story by Stig Esbern. Cinematography by Merritt B. Gerstad; edited by John W. English. Director: Benjamin Christensen. Shown at Cinevent 35, Columbus OH, May 2003.
After a notable career as a director and actor in his native Denmark that included the controversial Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages, Christiansen was brought to America in 1926 by MGM, where after completing two films, The Devil’s Circus and Mockery, and working on The Mysterious Island (begun by Maurice Tourneur and completed by Lucian Hubbard), he moved to First National.
There he completed (among other films) a version of A. Merritt’s Seven Footprints to Satan that’s not a lost film but one that’s in restoration limbo. (It was announced for a showing on Turner several years ago that was cancelled with the explanation, as I recall, that the soundtrack was not up to standard. An odd explanation for a silent film’s cancellation. A good friend, Charlie Shibuk, who saw the film some 25 years ago at the Museum of Modern Art with Czech intertitles, points out that the original titles were written by Cornell Woolrich as William Irish.)
Chaney plays Sergei, a brutish peasant who rescues the Countess Tatiana (Barbara Bedford) from revolutionaries, helping her to escape to Novokutsk to deliver a message to the Czarist forces. Sergei falls in love with Tatiana and she, in turn, falls in love with a Czarist officer (Ricardo Cortez) who arrives in time to save her from the Bolsheviks.
Chaney learns to hate the aristocrats but can’t overcome his love for Tatiana and sacrifices his life for her. Chaney, almost unrecognizable in his effective makeup, gives a nuanced performance, one of his strongest in a non-genre film that I’ve seen.
I didn’t detect any of the stylistic flourishes for which Christiansen’s horror films are known, but his sensitive handling of the fine cast is, perhaps, a testament to his own acting skill.
I wondered if the editor is the same John English who co-directed, with William Witney, some of Republic Studio’s finest serials in the late 1930s. IMDB says yes.